monday musing: las vegas

You forget how much the sky can be different until you come out West again. There is a simple explanation. It has to do with flatness, it has to do with vistas. Maybe the idea of the West as simple and honest comes partly from that. You can see where the clouds are and where they’ve been and where they are going.

One of the myths that gets worked up into a reality in America is the one about the past and history and identity. It is a rejection of the ancient idea that character is fate. It is the idea that one can be anything one wants. This is largely a lie of course, but so what. There is no going back. Las Vegas is a place where it is pretty clear that no one is going back to anything. But at the same time, it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. There’s no past in Vegas but even so the place crazily attempts to fit the entirety of human history onto a few miles of the Strip, from the ancient pyramids to New York City. Pretty amazing.

What I’m trying to say is that Las Vegas makes no sense but it explodes into a phantasm every night anyway and then dies into the sunlight. It doesn’t even really exist during the daytime. There is something a little sad about a place that is such a spectacle at night and so invisible during the day. It is an American sadness somehow, a Jay Gatsby sadness. And it is a strong sadness, or there’s a strength in it. There’s a depth there all of a sudden just when everything seemed pure surface.

Las Vegas evaporates into the sand, into bits of road that give up so suddenly it can make you laugh. All at once you’re at the end of the world and there are just the dusty mountains beyond that make some final limit to how far the housing developments can creep. The desert said, “you can have this bowl in which to fester and glow.” At the center of it all stands the Strip, generating the outward push.

The great casinos of the last fifteen years have developed according to one overriding impulse. That impulse has been to capture the imaginative spaces of the world for commerce. Of course, the real world spaces, Paris, Venice, New York, etc., are centers of commerce in themselves already. But what is immediately striking about Paris or Venice, Las Vegas is how each place has been contained, distilled, and represented as a manageable version of the original purged of everything but its symbolism and imagery reconstituted into gaming areas and shopping corridors. The thirst for civilizational spaces seems to be the primary driving force in the most recent incarnations of the Strip. The indeterminate fantasy zones, the Palms, Sands, Sahara, Flamingo, and even the more recent Treasure Island have receded into the background or disappeared altogether. The fun of those older fantasylands was the fun of pure play. They were escapes beyond the boundaries of any possible world. The newer spaces are interesting in that they are playing with the real world. Vegas has the audacity to recreate and thus lay some claim to the actual world, to other locations with which it shares space and time. And yet it is still under the guise of a giant wink and nudge, a knowing smile. But the sense of funny is muted. It’s muted because of the sadness, the sadness that is, one must suppose, at the center of gambling and its infinite monotonous temporality. What a stunning audacity to claim the entirety of world culture for your own and then admit that you don’t care, that it is as boring and empty as the mechanism of a slot machine – a machine that, in the end, merely produces randomness. And it might be an honest admission too. Las Vegas never seems to be having the fun that it claims to be having, is always more aware of itself than it would like to be. It’s more exhausted than exhilarating. At least, this is how one can start to like it. There is something honest about it even as it is playing all these games and pretending to be so many things at once.

At New York, New York, Las Vegas they have built a rollercoaster that weaves in and out of the compacted skyline of New York City. It is fast and scary. You get a glimpse of the back side of the Statue of Liberty before you tumble down again in another loop or corkscrew. I love it. They should put one in the real New York. You could see people screaming in a loop around the Citicorp building or spiraling down the side of the Empire State. The theorists of simulacrum would send up a cry: one more defeat for the really real! But they would be wrong. There is no lack of reality on the Las Vegas Strip. It is just one more version of things. From the top of one the big drops at the New York rollercoaster you can see the mountains outside of Vegas for a moment before you plunge. If it is twilight you will see a very special desert light. It is soft and clear at the same time, gentle and brittle simultaneously. And then you speed down into Brooklyn while the whole car train screams and laughs in delight and the mountains are gone in the distance again. Las Vegas.